The name Stan Brakhage (January 14, 1933-March 9, 2003) immediately triggers a million ideas on non-narrative cinema. This narrative-less approach to film focuses on qualities inherent to the medium, such as the texture of the film, the use of a subjective camera to record an interior monologue, and jagged editing associated with the directors of the avant-garde, both within the domain of the arthouse cinema and outside.
In Brakhage’s words, “You are seeing yourself seeing. You are seeing your own mechanism of seeing expressing itself. You’re seeing what the feedback of the mind puts into the optic nerve ends that cause them to spark and shape up like that.”
Brakhage’s work deals with birth, death and sex through the gaze of an inner eye that brings about something akin to a search for God. Like the trance films pioneered by American artist Maya Deren, Brakhage’s work offers a first-person vision in the tradition of Romanticism. Like Deren, Brakhage came to understand film through poetry, and his earliest films do resemble those of Deren and her contemporaries.
Brakhage was a pioneer of artisanal cinema. While his earlier films had a lyrical style, this was transformed into a more epic style with Dog Star Man with a focus on broad metaphysical themes.
A believer in the superiority of the visual over sound, the Kansas maverick attempted to present the eye as a source of potential imagination before it became corrupted by representation. For example, Loving, a first-person account of the sexual act, depicts orgasm as a tragic fate, instead of the happy climax that Hollywood and the pornographic industry make it out to be. The objective of this piece is to deliberately confuse perception, hallucination and memory and present them as a unified consciousness.
Brakhage was among the first filmmakers to physically alter the filmstrip itself for metaphorical effect. The most striking example of this technique in his early films occurs in Reflections on Black, in which Brakhage signals the blindness of his protagonist by physically scratching out his eyes, and splices in bits of film negative.
For Brakhage, it was through language, specifically through the works of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, that the perception captured by the inner eye could be realised. Equally important was Abstract Expressionism, the art movement led by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman that used non-representational forms to reach the deep silence of the interior.
Like in all great modernist art, the link between art and meaning in Brakhage’s films is collapsed so that the viewer can instead participate in the act of creation. This is best seen in his best-known camera-less film Mothlight, for which he collected moth wings, and petals, pressed them between strips of 16mm film, and directly projected the result into theatres. The audience engaged with the materiality of film through objects pasted onto it.
Cinema is essentially a play of moving light captured for eternity. Brakhage was keenly interested in phosphenes, and films like Black Ice and Co-mingled Containers attempted to capture light through forms where light did not actually hit the eye.
His use of colour was not perceptional, decorative, or coded. Instead Brakhage used colour to form an element of the frame. Most important for him, as seen in his films Cat’s Cradle and Scenes from Under Childhood, was red and its tones that captured the consciousness of a baby and symbolised the process of birthing.
In his last films, Brakhage eschewed cinematography altogether and focused largely on painting, scratching and drawing directly on the surface of the film strip itself. As seen most explicitly in his 1989 work Visions in Meditation, film was about moving into a state of trance, something that Brakhage would experience himself whilst making the film. Thus, engaging art, like in the works of Jackson Pollock, was a record of what the artist left behind whilst in a trance-like state.